how to avoid work while on vacation

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We’ve all had that sinking feeling when the cell phone (or Blackberry) rings while we’re on vacation. It’s hard enough to separate your work from your private time on a daily basis, but on vacation you’re even more vulnerable to feelings of guilt and fear of backstabbing. You shouldn’t feel ashamed to be on vacation. If you take a few steps to change expectations before you go on vacation you can make your holiday restful, which is all most of us want.

Spend time with your backup before you go. I don’t care if you work in retail or if you’re a small business owner or if you are a CEO: you have a backup. If you don’t have someone who will take your place while you’re on a two-week vacation, you may want to ask yourself what you actually DO. One of the main sources of stress for vacationers is a concern that the person taking their place won’t be up to the job, creating a mess to be cleaned up on return. Making sure your backup has all the tools he or she needs to do your job will prevent phone calls and emails. Leave a list of contacts. Put flags in an operational manual. Set up calendar reminders with alarms in a shared calendar. Make sure your backup isn’t just controlling fires, he’s putting them out.

Use the out-of-office message. I am amazed by most out-of-office messages. A message like this is not helpful:

“Hi, I’m out of the office until next Friday. I’ll have limited access to email and voicemail.”

Everyone understands that when you’re out of the office you don’t have a flashing red light on voicemail and pop-up reminders to check Outlook. I’m always surprised that people don’t leave more descriptive messages, like this (a la Tim Ferris):

“Hi, I’m out of the office until next Friday. While out, I will check emails once daily – expect at least a 24 hour turnaround on all emails. If you need information about the Oompa-Loompa payrolls, please contact Lucy Dahl.”

Make yourself easily reachable – through a gatekeeper. If you have a colleague or an assistant who is willing to field calls for you, do it. They don’t have to know anything about your job, just be willing to forward on a call. Someone will be willing to do it – offer to do it for them the next time they go on vacation. Here’s the trick: on your out-of-office messages, say something like this: “If you need to speak to me urgently, contact Lucy Dahl at 555-5555, she has my travel itinerary.” Or leave your hotel number. I think you accomplish two things this way: you make it obvious you are reachable, but you put enough of a hurdle that most people will pause before trying to contact you.

Check in on your schedule, not theirs. If you have an hour while everyone’s napping, check in. If you check in during slow parts of the day, you will have a bit of plausible deniability if you turn the phone off for an hour during dinner. Try to get a jump on your calls. Most people won’t want to bother you again if you just spoke to them 30 minutes earlier.

Block out your calendar. If you work in a company where calendars are used to set up meetings and appointments, make sure you set yours to automatically reject all meeting invitations sent to you while you’re gone. I’m not saying you should refuse all meetings, but you should always make sure that someone actually has to contact you directly (via a gatekeeper, if possible!) so they’ll think long and hard about whether you truly need to attend.

Try to keep your damn priorities straight. I know it’s a bad economy, I know Johnny the Intern is gunning for your cubicle, and I know your boss is a micromanager who loves to manage via email, but if you get fired for taking 24 hours to respond to an email you either work in a bomb-defusing special unit or you work in a place where you were eventually going to be fired, anyway. Lighten up and drink a margarita. Nobody’s suggesting you take a runner, but you don’t want to be the guy or gal in the family picture album who never has red eye in the pictures because you always had your nose in your Blackberry. Give it a rest!

photo by muha…

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